In Washington, local governments must develop Shoreline Master Plans to balance land use and preservation within 200 feet of the shore.

Shoreline Management Plans

Case Studies:


Shoreline planning can be a very valuable tool for managing shoreline erosion impacts in the coastal environment. Developing a shoreline management plan allows you to designate what levels of development and/or shoreline stabilization would be appropriate given the characteristic of each shoreline segment, e.g. high-risk erosion area, valuable sand source, ecologically significant habitat, moderately developed shorefront, highly developed shorefront, etc. Shoreline Management Plans can be their own stand-alone management plan or be a component of a broader management plan, such as a Special Area Management Plan, local coastal plan, land use plan, or other regional plan. For example, within the state of Washington, each county develops their own Shoreline Management Plan pursuant to the state's Shoreline Management Act (RCW 90.58) (see case study below).

Planning is one of the few techniques that allows for a regional, more holistic approach to shoreline management—much more effective then attempting to manage the shoreline one building or shoreline stabilization permit at a time. While some planning processes may be constrained by municipal or county boundaries, plans should strive to apply to an ecologically and geomorphologically significant area such as a drift cell or embayment. Even the best shoreline management plan will not be completely successful if the neighboring area within the same drift cell does not implement the same planning approach.

Shoreline management plans are often paired with zoning overlay districts to help enforce development and/or shoreline stabilization restrictions along the shore.

Benefits: Enables a more holistic regional/drift cell approach to shoreline management instead of a piecemeal parcel by parcel approach. By identifying high risk erosion areas where significant development and/or shoreline stabilization should not be allowed, shoreline management plans can reduce the need for costly erosion control structures and can minimize property damage. Plans establish clear guidelines when, where, and if different types of stabilization techniques can be used.

Drawbacks: Requires good scientific data to effectively determine when and where different types of erosion control approaches should be used and where high-risk erosion areas are located. May get into "takings" issues if the plan limits the type of development allowed in specific shoreline areas. Restricting the type of shoreline stabilization technique allowed may also be politically unpopular, especially where existing development already exists. Also, if many variances are permitted, plans loose their effectiveness.

Case Studies:

Washington's Shoreline Management Act

Washington's Shoreline Management Act (SMA) recognizes the importance of protecting and preserving the ecological function of shorelines and natural resources but also recognizes the value of shorelines for human use. Therefore, under the SMA, local governments must develop Shoreline Master Plans to balance land use and preservation within 200 feet of the shore. The local Shoreline Master Plans must be consistent with statewide guidance and be updated regularly. The state's amended Shoreline Master Program Guidelines Rule, which was adopted in December 2003, requires Shoreline Master Plans to ensure "no net loss" of the shoreline's ecological function. The Shoreline Master Plans must also include a system for classifying the shoreline into six specific environmental designations (Natural, Rural Conservancy, Aquatic, High-Intensity, Urban Conservancy, and Shoreline Residential) and a map of the shoreline showing the boundaries for each designation. Environmental designations are based on the level and type of development present, the significance of shoreline resources in the area, the suitability of the area for development (e.g. Is it prone to erosion?), and whether or not it is located within a designated growth management area (an area where development is encouraged).

The type of environmental designation then dictates how much and what type of development and land use(s) are allowed, including what type of shoreline stabilization structures (if any) are allowed. For example, the statewide Shoreline Management Plan Guidance states that "natural" areas are relatively pristine stretches of shoreline with little shoreline modification or hardening. Some low-intensity, single-family residential development, agricultural and forestry activities using sustainable practices can be permitted. However, no structural shoreline stabilization or significant removal of riparian vegetation is allowed. "Rural conservancy" areas are slightly more developed than "natural" areas, however, new land uses should not substantially degrade the shoreline or its ecological function. Structural shoreline stabilization techniques are only allowed if there is a demonstrated need to protect existing development and "softer" stabilization approaches are not feasible.

Local governments use these state guidelines to develop more specific standards for shoreline development within their Shoreline Master Plans. For example, Bainbridge Island's 1996 Special Area Management Plan, which incorporates their shoreline plan, prohibits revetments and bulkheads in natural and aquatic conservancy areas. The Plan also stipulates that hardened shorelines are only permitted within the other designations after non-structural stabilization techniques are proven ineffective. In addition, for rural conservancy and shoreline residential areas, revetments and bulkheads are only allowed if another bulkhead exists within 100 feet of the proposed structure. If there are no existing bulkheads in the area, a new bulkhead is not permitted.

Visit the website for Washington's Shoreline Master Program for more information about this program.

Monterey Bay Shoreline Management Planning

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) is a federally-protected marine area offshore of California's central coast and encompasses 276 miles of shoreline. This coastline includes both pristine areas such as Big Sur and more developed areas such as Santa Cruz. Approximately 14 miles of the coastline are currently armored and this figure is expected to double if current shoreline development trends continue.

The Sanctuary must authorize and can place conditions on any California Coastal Commission (Commission) permit for armoring projects below mean high tide. In the past, MBNMS review focused primarily on minimizing construction impacts and not on the long-term effects of the structure. Many seawalls also have been constructed without the Sanctuary's authorization. Therefore, to more effectively consider long-term and regional impacts from these armoring projects and improve interagency coordination on the permitting process, MBNMS initiated a joint evaluation with the Commission to develop a regional approach to coastal armoring which would be incorporated into the Sanctuary's management plan.

The MBNMS convened a workgroup in 2003 with representatives from the Commission, U.S. Geological Survey, California Department of Transportation, California Department of Boating and Waterways, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and scientists from local institutions to develop an action plan for a proactive regional approach to coastal armoring. The action plan calls for the following:

The pilot project in southern Monterey Bay began in January 2005. The Southern Monterey Bay Coastal Erosion and Armoring Workgroup is overseeing the project and has already synthesized the scientific information related to coastal erosion and armoring in the pilot area, identified existing structures threatened by erosion, and outlined some potential alternatives to shoreline hardening. The workgroup will continue to identify at-risk areas, potential response options, and criteria for selecting an option to implement. Finally, the workgroup will recommend strategies for implementing the regional action plan based on the process they developed during the pilot project. The recommendations stemming from the pilot project will guide the Commission, Sanctuary and local jurisdictions on how to evaluate future armoring applications and address shoreline erosion more holistically within the Monterey Bay region.

Although the pilot project is still in its infancy, its already encountered several challenges including how to reach a consensus on which erosion rate data to use given that different scientific studies have produced different results. In addition, the workgroup must decide how best to consider both episodic events such as El Niño that can cause more severe short-term erosion, as well as chronic erosion, which erodes gradually over the long term. Finally, when determining shoreline management options, the workgroup must be sure that they are balancing the need to protect private property with the need protect public beaches, as beaches are often impacted directly and indirectly by changes in sand transport caused by armoring. Balancing private property versus public access needs includes the sometimes-difficult task of putting an economic value on non-market uses, such as public access and commercial use of the beach (see the Economics of Shoreline Management for a more in-depth discussion about valuing non-market uses).